Senegalese American Gabourey Sidibe is an actress who has had a vibrant career since she starred in ‘Precious’, a Lee Daniels’ 2009 movie.
Sidibe shot into stardom for her role as Claireece “Precious” Jones in her debut movie Precious, winning the Independent Spirit Award for Best Female Lead and earned best actress nominations for Golden Globe Award and Academy Award for her role.
Since then, her career has been on the upswing, starring in other top movies and shows like ‘American Horror Story’ and ‘Difficult People’. Other films she has starred in include ‘Tower Heist’, ‘White Bird in a Blizzard’, ‘Grimsby’, among others.
She’s also been a great role model for plus-size women.
Born May 6, 1983 in Brooklyn, NY. Gabourey MaLingair Sidibe’s Senegalese father plied his trade as a cabdriver while her mother taught special education early in her life.
She however toed the angle of her American mother who was also an entertainer, singing on subway platforms on the side for 30 years, trying to build a career. She finally got featured on America’s Got Talent at age 57, and made her first record at age 63.
Sidibe who also has singing talent admitted that she initially didn’t want to go into show business but wanted a 9 to 5 job watching her mother struggle since she didn’t’ want to worry about where her next pay check was going to come from.
“I knew every song on the radio, so I sang a lot,” she said. “And it was really weird cause like older classes — like the senior girls — would come find me in school and have me sing their favourite song, which is weird.”
While she didn’t want to do that for a living, it helped her in school. She encouraged young people to find their own passions.
Her childhood was not a pleasant one because of her size which constatnlt drew the ire of her father. She admits her father beat her and called her “fatso” when she was young, saying her childhood gave her “a lot of practice acting.”
“I grew up pretending I was okay when I wasn’t.” She said.
“For a long time, my father was dead to me,” she shared saying that “the six-year-old in me is still pissed, but I don’t think I am a victim.” She confided that her “first bully was [her] older brother,” and that “he said horrible things to me and I said just as bad things to him.”
Sidibe’s size was something she’s been battling from early age. She has battled her weight all her life, telling Oprah Winfrey that her first diet was at age six. And not only did her father say that she was fat, but so did her mother.
In a 2014 speech at the Ms. Foundation’s Gloria Awards and Gala, she said that her mom “had been a fat girl at my age herself, understood me perfectly,” yet “she berated me because she was so afraid of what she knew was to come for me,” making her feel unsafe, even at home.
When she was in the fourth grade, her parents split and her brother, mother and herself had to go and live with her aunt, Dorothy Pitman Hughes who was a civil rights and feminist activist in Harlem.
The legendary photo of Hughes with Steinem, gave her inspiration saying that “every day, I had to get up and go to school where everyone made fun of me, and I had to go home to where everyone made fun of me,” but she “found strength” when she looked at the iconic photo.
“And every day as I would leave the house,” she said she would “give that photo a fist right back. And I’d march off into battle.”
Sidibe said in a 2016 interview that her childhood prepared her for her life now, saying “I gotta be honest with you — I went through school and I didn’t realize how much it really prepared me for real life,” she said. “I’m still dealing with the haters. It is rough.”
“The best advice I’ve heard is to shake hands with rejection. In life, you will fail more than you win, so get used to it and keep moving forward.”
Sidibe was studying psychology at Mercy College in New York City because the subject was a passion for her from age six. According to her interview with a magazine, by the time she was 10, she was “reading psychology books and studying therapy techniques.”
She also underwent therapy to help with her own issues, telling Andy Cohen (via People), and “I got a lot of therapy in my life. I champion for therapy — therapy is everything.”
In her 2017 book ‘This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare’ Sidibe talks about how when she was 21, her therapist at the time suggested she get a telemarketing job to pay the bills. But, she says, for some reason, “As soon as my therapist suggested ‘telemarketing,’ I heard ‘phone sex.'”
Sidibe learned quickly that the job was really about keeping the callers on the line long enough to ring up the bill. She also had to pretend to be white on the phone, because, she wrote, “The average caller is a white male” who wanted to talk to a white woman. “According to what I had already seen at this company, the average talker was a plus-size black woman,” Sidibe shared, “That’s right, white dudes! You might think you’re talking to Megan Fox, but you’re actually talking to…well…me!”
Sidibe worked at the phone sex business for three years, until she started work on Precious. She said she learned a lot on the job that would benefit her acting career. “I took what I learned about secrets, shame, and pleasure, and applied it to the real world around me,” she said. The actress “learned how to flirt” and “to ask for what I wanted.” She shared, “I’m not afraid to say anything to anyone. I’m not afraid to be anyone” because of the phone sex work. She also said, “My patience taught me to survive, and my intelligence helped me say yes to acting when the opportunity was presented to me.”
Sidibe had dabbled a little in acting, but wasn’t very serious about it, when she heard about the opportunity to play the part in the movie Precious, based on the novel Push, by Sapphire. Precious Jones is an obese, illiterate New York teenager who has had one child by her father, and is pregnant with the second. While not a happy story, it does become a more hopeful one. And, one especially close to the heart, for a young actress with a real history of an abusive father.
It had taken months to find the right person to play Precious, and it was Sidibe, who showed up late but “blew everyone away,” according to The New York Times. She “cried real tears” in the audition. Explaining her portrayal of the character, she said, “I kind of had in my mind that she wasn’t the ugliest person in the room, but she felt like she was.”
Even though she was once called the most “enormous, fat, black chick ever seen by a celebrity who said, “she’s never going to be in another movie,” Sidibe has landed numerous plum roles since Precious.
She appeared on The Big C, several iterations of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, Difficult People, and the 2011 movie Tower Heist. She currently co-stars in the hot FOX series Empire as Becky, a one-time assistant at the record company, who worked her way up to vice president of the company.
The role was originally supposed to be a “boyish, petite white girl,” but that Sidibie got the part. She relished the chance to play the role. “I enjoy the fact that out there is some little girl that is exactly like I was and she doesn’t see herself on TV,” she revealed. “She sees herself in me on Empire. If it has to start with me, why not?”
Not only does Sidibe have a thriving acting and writing career, and is going on her very first book tour for Try Not to Stare, she is trying her hand at directing. In 2016, she helmed a short film called The Tale of Four, which gets its plotline from the Nina Simone song “Four Women.”
The actress continues to be a role model as she loses weight and ups her fitness level, her sense of humour always shining through. “Listen, I’m a solitary, selfish person. I have no kids and I feel bad about my selfishness,” she shared.
“But I hear people tell me about how my struggles have helped them, and I’m glad that my selfishness is helpful to someone else…I love my body and I deserve love. We all do, at any size.”